Scrivener Tutorial – How I Write

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I love Scrivener. If any of you have read my little comparison review of Scrivener, Storyist and Storymill, you already know this. I adore this little piece of software. Sometimes I spend time browsin’ the web, looking for other people who love Scrivener.

This is sad.

However, it’s allowed me to come to one shocking conclusion; nobody uses Scrivener the same way! There are tons of options and ways to use this program, and it can be a bit daunting to try and discover your own way of working with the thing when you first open it. So I’ve decided to write a little tutorial on how I, personally, use Scrivener to manage my writing.

Now a proper example would have consisted of my 09 NaNoNovel, but since it’s un-edited, un-published and generally kept a damn secret from everyone including my own mother, you’ll get screencaps containing fanfiction. Because I also use Scrivener to write fanfiction (shock! horror!).

So there. No nagging please.

On to the method!

Snowflake, and why it is your friend.

When I first started getting seriously (well, somewhat seriously… Only dabbling, really.) into writing and looking for apps to help manage all the post-its and loose-leaf binders I had lying around, I came upon a template for StoryMill called The Snowflake Method. This is actually a method commonly used for creative writing, which involves breaking down the –rather daunting– task of writing a novel into short, bite-sized chunks which are much easier to manage (they also seem a little less daunting that way).

Snowflake goes thus: before you ever get down to typing a single word of your manuscript, you should spend some time, preferably a lot of it, planning out your basic synopsis, your characters and their motivations, and your outline. If you do this right, it’s then a breeze (relatively speaking) to expand on everything you’ve just done and pound out the story.

The steps are broken down into 9 basic tasks, which we’ll get into later. What’s important here is to note that Scrivener also has template support. Once you’ve built your own snowflake template, you can then use it as a base for all your future creative writing/novel projects.

According to the ancient laws of procrastination though, that’s no guarantee you’ll actually follow the snowflake steps (I rarely do… They’re not rules, more like guidelines, really).

How it works out in Scrivener

Your first step is to create your Snowflake template in Scrivener. I have a handy .scriv file here that you can use to adapt your own. The important thing to remember is that the template creation step will help you get used to Scrivener’s structure and options.

Snowflake Method basic Outliner

Snowflake Method basic Outliner

Time for a little refresher course. The Binder is the main folder structure of your manuscript and it also contains, outside of the Draft folder, any notes, research documents, character sheets and other miscellaneous info you want to cram in there.

The main window can be divided into two editor panes using the icon at the top-right of any editor. You can change the orientation of the editor split by going into View -> Layout. I choose a horizontal split, because I keep the Inspector (at the far right) and the Binder always open for quick glances at document properties. You can choose, via the Scrivener -> Preferences -> Navigation pane, which browsing/navigation method you like best, either Outliner or Corkboard. This affects all default editor panes but can be overridden as needed. I prefer Outliner mode, because it gives me more info on the status of every document.

You have several options for viewing your files/chapters/scenes. Clicking an item in the Binder will open it in the default editor (I usually set mine to Top Editor, because I like to have my text below that, in the alternate editor). Similarly, you can click the “arrows” icon at the bottom of your default editor to force documents to open in the alternate editor. This needs some explaining, but once it’s setup properly, it’s a breeze to navigate your stuff. The short of it, once it’s set as explained above: Binder selections will always open in Top Editor, Top Editor selections will always open in Bottom Editor.

This isn’t the only configuration you can have, it’s simply one way to navigate your document; experiment as needed and find the one that works best for you.

You can create as many Binder folders as your need. In the screenshot, you can see my snowflake template already has folder examples for Chapters and Scenes, as well as for Characters, Locations and Tasks. Each folder, when selected in the Binder, will open up in your editor pane and display info such as status (To Do, First Draft, Revised Draft, Final Draft), label (Chapter, Scene). You can also add items such as word count, created date, modified date, progress, etc. Statuses and labels are customizable and you can add your own as needed.

Snowflake Method current Tasks and their Status

Snowflake Method current Tasks and their Status

The Snowflake Method is spelled out in the Tasks folder. You can edit these documents directly as you complete the steps. You can also change the status of every step to “Done” once the task is complete. Following these steps, you’ll eventually create character sheets for everyone in your story, populate the binder with your chapters and scenes and slowly fill them up, first with synopses, then with prose.

Snowflake Method Character sheets

Snowflake Method Character sheets

As you follow (or not…) the snowflake steps, you’ll add to every character sheet and eventually you’ll end up with a very detailed description of every major plot point relating to every one of your characters. Combine that with detailed synopses of every chapter and scene, and you’re almost done.

If you want more info on the Snowflake Method and how you can use/bastardize it, this site has some good startup info.

Snowflake in practice

Once you’re done with the planning, outlining and other tedious concerns, you can start pouding out the story. Or you can cheat, as I usually do, and get right to it form the very start, making it up as you go along.

Binder structure and Outliner preview

Binder structure and Outliner preview

The two editor panes always work in conjunction to display your content. Here, we can see that the top editor selection, Chapter Memories, opens up a list of all scenes in the bottom editor. You can also expand any folder/chapter by clicking the arrow next to it. Clicking on a document that isn’t a folder will open up the actual manuscript in the bottom editor. You can see how it’s useful to have all the info up on a single page; status, labels and snyopses work together to help manage your content.

Outliner Scenes and Editing Scrivenings

Outliner Scenes and Editing Scrivenings

Once you’ve got your documents selected in the top editor, you can go straight to writing. You can edit your manuscript scene by scene as you go, or select several scenes in the Binder or Top Editor and click the Edit Scrivenings button (Scrivenings is what the program calls any document that contains prose). When you’re editing several scenes, you’ll get a very subtle background color change to indicate when you’re moving from one scene to another. Every document can also have Notes, as shown in the Inspector at the bottom right. In addition to the synopsis, you can jot down anything you don’t wish to forget into the notes. You can also include pictures, which is useful when you’re doing character sheets.

Binder structure and Outliner preview

The completed character section from On Silver Wings

Alternatively, if you just want to dump stuff into your Research folder, Scrivener supports several file types and you can simply drag and drop files into the Binder for later use.

Finally, there’s Full Screen

Once you’re used to navigating your way around Scrivener, you’ll want to really get down to the dirty work of writing your story/article. My favorite way of doing that is, by far, the Full Screen mode. First, you need to select the documents you want to edit in full screen. Start by clicking the Binder, then the Chapter you want, then click Edit Scrivenings. This should open up all Scenes in the bottom editor for writing/editing. Then, just hit the Full Screen button and off you go.

Full Screen evolved

Full Screen evolved

Full Screen presents you with a simple no-frills editor on a black background. Everything else disappears, but you still have the option to display the Inspector next to your writing, so that you can keep an eye on any notes or synopses that you may want nearby. You can also change display options by hovering your mouse near the bottom of the screen, which pops the options dock up.

Full Screen options dock

Full Screen options dock

You can then change the width and position of your “paper”,  zoom in on the text a bit to make it easier on the eyes and change the background opacity, should you like your desktop wallpaper to peek through. You can also click the Keywords or Inspector icons to bring them up into your Full Screen window. The Inspector contains your Document notes (Any notes attached to a scene, for example) synopsis and keywords. To leave Full Screen, just press Escape, or click the icon at the bottom right of the options dock. Keep in mind however, that if you’ve set up active corners on your Mac, these will still be active even in Full Screen.

Parting notes

This is just a brief walkthrough of how I use Scrivener. There are many awesome ways to use this piece of software, and I’m well aware that I don’t use every feature set available, but this is what works for me. I’m constantly discovering nifty little new shortcuts, and I strongly suggest following @ScrivenerApp on Twitter if you have an account; they post a new Tip-of-the-day every day and it’s a useful way of getting notices and update announcements.

If you have tips of your own, feel free to share them!

4 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Johnson, roelani. roelani said: Newness on the blog: Scrivener Tutorial – How I Write […]

  2. […] (otherwise known as a first draft) and trial the Snowflake Method of writing a novel. I even found a great Scrivener template to start me […]

  3. […] Scrivener-This is one of the best writing softwares out there. It’s so flexible–it can be whatever the writer needs it to be to help him or her buid a novel. There is even a template in Scrivener using the Snowflake Method. […]

  4. […] (otherwise known as a first draft) and trial the Snowflake Method of writing a novel. I even found a great Scrivener template to start me […]


  1. Interesting method. I’ll have to look at it more closely. I’m always looking for new ways to take advantage of Scrivener’s great features. Did you know you can change the background colors in Scrivener’s full screen mode? It’s in the Scrivener menu under Preferences. I use this to take advantage of research that shows blue is better for creative pursuits like writing, and red is best for editing. Thanks!

    • Matthias says:

      very interesting! I never knew that about colors, but i did install a blue light bulb at my desk a few months ago, just because i felt like it would help my writing, and it has. i just thought i was crazy, but now i guess i’m just bleeding edge. ;-)

    • roelani says:

      Thanks for the comment. :)

      Yeah, I did know about the colors, but I didn’t mention it since the default actually suits me fine. I usually write in the evenings, and the default white/pale tan for the scenes on the full screen has always worked a treat for me.

      Interesting idea though, about the color schemes affecting your mood for writing/editing. I guess it makes sense, but I can’t fathom doing anything productive with a red background. It’d stress me out way too much, and I’m already quite as hyper as I’d like to be. ;)

      • Ioa says:

        Sorry for the intrusion, I migrated over here from the forum after our discussion on carrying ePub copies of The Book around. Nicely written tutorial.

        The amusing thing is that the default full-screen colour scheme is actually modelled after the way evening light was striking the paper in my typewriter, in my writing room, 2005. I proposed the look, and that’s how it has been ever since. :)

      • roelani says:

        Thanks @Ioa ;) The default full screen color scheme is lovely, IMHO. It strikes just the right balance of contrast and easy-on-the-eyes vibrancy that I feel is required for long periods of writing.

        Strange how often technology ends up imitating real life, huh? I know I haven’t quite been able to fully jump into the eBook formats for reading simply because the feeling of paper is just too important, I feel, in regards to the whole experience of reading.

        Guess I must be old-fashioned. ;)

      • Ioa says:

        I hear you on the aesthetics issue. I do in fact enjoy eBooks a great deal, but vastly prefer e-ink based readers like the Kindle. The *visual* feel of it is virtually identical to a printed page—the only things missing are the text of the paper and the smell of the book itself. But it does have its advantages, too. I recently moved, and that means hauling many extremely heavy boxes of books! It took two carloads to get all of my physical books moved, but I brought several hundred books with me on the first day just by happening to have my Kindle with me at the time. :)

        But yes, having a writing environment that somewhat matched the way type looks on paper is pretty important to me. I use the P22 Typewriter font for much of my work. If you want to see another application using some visual models I worked on, search the Scrivener forum for “BlockWriter”. It’ll be a *very* old thread. Curious bit of trivia, for a while there was thought to making Scrivener’s full screen look much like BlockWriter’s full screen, as well as acting like it too. It acts much like a typewriter, except it lets you correct typos. But if you go back and try to delete something from earlier, it won’t let you—it will overstrike the text instead. It was decided that such a model would be too crazy for most people though, so the plans to include it in Scrivener were abandoned. However you can still download the old test application and play with it. I do sometimes still write in that because I like how it forces you to keep writing.

        Perhaps I’m a little old-fashioned, too.

      • roelani says:

        @Ioa: checking it out as I type! Thanks for the link. I might also investigate some of your app solutions for annotation on the iPhone, although, like I said on the Scriv forum, I’m pretty happy with just taking notes in a separate app.

        EDIT: Oh noes! BlockWriter link no longer seems available in the FreeStuff archives. I’m getting a 404.

      • Ioa says:

        Oh no! Well, if you send me an e-mail at webmaster AT literatureandlatteDOTcom, I’ll be happy to send you a zipped copy.

  2. Matthias says:

    I also love Scrivener, and I’m always looking for other users too. Love seeing how other people use it.

    I’m also a Final Fantasy fan! :)

    • roelani says:

      Hey Matthias. I peeked at yer blog, and it seems widely interesting, as well as ridiculously well written.

      I’ll keep myself posted, shall I? ;)

      • Matthias says:

        Oh you’re very kind, thank you! *blush*

        I am looking forward to getting all caught up on your blog as well. Pleased to meet you! :)

  3. Nao says:

    Hi, I came across this post via a search for customizing and setting up Scrivener. Aside from yours, I haven’t had much luck and the forum is quite overwhelming for me at the moment when I just want to quickly learn the ropes and set things up in the most efficient manner possible to start off with. That said, I wanted to say thank you very much for such an informative post. It really helped me a lot in understanding how I can work with Scrivener.

    I do, however, have a question regarding something you mentioned. You said something about how after everything is set up, you can work so that when, say, a folder is clicked, the files under it will show up in the top editor in outline format. Then when clicking on a file, it should automatically open in the bottom editor.

    How do I get it so that it works like that? I’ve been fiddling around with it for ages, but it’s just not working. Whenever I click on a file, it does absolutely nothing. Double-clicking only allows me to edit the file name. The only way for me to make something show up on the bottom editor (or the top one for that matter) is clicking on it to make the window active and then going to the binder to select the file for whichever window I’ve clicked active. It’s not functioning like the way you mentioned, so I’m wondering if I misunderstood something. The preferences doesn’t seem to have an option for that either.

    Any help or advice you can give me would be GREATLY appreciated. It’s bugging me that stuff keeps popping up at the wrong editor simply because I forget to click on it to make it active. Ideally, I’d like it to work like how you mentioned- it sounds like the way Mail works… and that’s good for me.

    Thank you very much!

    • roelani says:

      Hi Nao! M’happy you found my post informative and I’m always glad to help. I’m no Scrivener expert, but what you’re describing sounds to me like you missed a few steps in the setting up of the editors.

      So. First step is to make certain that your view has the two editors, top and bottom (or left and right, depending on your screen real estate). Once you have your editors set up the way you want them, you want to right-click anything in the Binder, go to “Binder affects” and select “Top editor”. Then, in the top editor window, at the bottom there’s an icon with two arrows pointing in opposite directions. If you click this, any document you select in either corkboard or outliner modes in the top editor will open in the “alternate” or bottom editor.

      Also, you can only auto-open folders which contain “chapters” or “scenes” in this way. If you click on an empty folder, you’ll get nothing. Setting the “Binder affects” property in this way ensures that you never have to click into either editor windows to make it active; Scrivener will always “unfold” your Binder items into whichever editor is active, but “Binder affects” overwrites this action.

      I hope this helps you somewhat. If you still have questions, I’ve added your e-mail adress (don’t worry, it’s kept private on the site, but WordPress notified me of your comment with your credentials) to my GTalk account. Just add me and I’ll try to answer your questions if I can. :)


  4. Lisa says:

    Hello, I found this post by googling tips on how to integrate the Snowflake Method into Scrivener. I really like the way you have things set-up. I’m interested in trying it out (adapting a few steps of course for my own purpose). The only thing I can’t figure out is how you were able to set up the Tasks folder. It looks like it is the same level as the Research and Draft folders from the screencap, but I can’t figure out how to make another “main” folder in the Binder. I can only add folders either under the Draft or Research folders. Thanks for any help.

    • roelani says:

      Hi Lisa! I’m happy you found my mini-tutorial helpful. :)

      The thing about folders in the Binder in Scrivener (and generally in any app that uses the left pane to navigate or outline folders or other content) is that any new folder you create will automagically appear as a sub-folder of any currently selected folder. So, in Scriv, you usually end up creating the folder within the Draft section. That’s fine. You can create and name your folder in there. After that, just click and drag the newly created “Tasks” folder outside of the Draft section. You’ll see a blue line appear where the folder will be moved as you drag; just nudge it below all other folders and a little to the left and it should pop up outside of the Draft folder once you release it. It’s not terribly obvious, but the line will move just outside of the margin when you do it right.

      If you have trouble, you can always just download my .scriv file (I think it’s up there linked somewhere, if not let me know and I’ll send it to you) and use it as a template to mod into your own project template.

      Hope that helps. :)

  5. Vasily says:

    Your .scriv file doesn’t appear to work with Scrivener 2.0.2; on opening, there’s a message about updating the file’s format, then when it’s saved as a template the result is a blank project sans content.

    • roelani says:

      Hi Vasily!

      I’m fairly certain there have been some changes to the way Scriv 2.0 uses templates. I’ll have to look over it and see what I can do to export my Snowflake template so it’s compatible; it’s been in my list of things to do for a while, right along with writing another tutorial since this one is now more or less useless, with all the new features 2.0 has introduced.

      As soon as OSW-Chappy 9 is done and posted, I’ll try to update the template. ;) In the meantime, you can head on over to the Scriv forums and see if there’s a way to convert it.


  6. deb says:

    does your sciv file work with Scrivener for Windows? I have ben trying to get it to open.

    • roelani says:

      Hello deb!

      Unfortunately, I have no idea if these older .scriv files are windows-compatible. As I don’t own a PC, I can’t check ;) You’d probably have better luck asking around the forums.

      • Karpsy says:


        I’ve just strated using Scrivener for windows and have been reading up a little. Unfortunately it seems like older .scriv files are not compatible with the Windows version. The new 2.x-files should be however.

        Cheers for a great guide!

  7. SpyGuy says:

    Wow. Ive been wanting to write original content to sell on my store. I bought scrivener but was so overwelhm with all the features. Thank you for this awsome Post. I will definitely use this method

  8. Michael O'Connor says:

    Really great tutorial R
    I’ve been searching for a snowflake template that is compatible with scrivener 2.1. I tried to import yours before I read Vasily’s post and hit the same brick wall.

    Are you considering an update, or (as we all are) consumed by too many projects?
    Cheers Michael

  9. Michael O'Connor says:

    Great snowflake tutorial!
    Did you ever create a template for Scrivener 2.X (mac)?
    Did it turn out that templates can’t be saved/exported?
    I would love to use yours as a starting point for my Sci-Fi project.
    Cheers Michael

  10. Michael O'Connor says:

    Hi Roelani!!
    Thanks for the updated template – i have been charging ahead with my project, which for me means researching and building the back story.
    Good look in your projects.
    Cheers Michael

    • roelani says:

      Thanks very much, Michael~

      I’ve been writing like a demon nonstop for the past year, so it’s all good. Sadly, I was out of steam for NaNoWriMo this year. Better luck next November, I suppose. Very glad you found template after all this time; I have to admit I sort of fell off the surface of the earth for a while there.

      Good luck with your writing as well~

  11. Robin Brooks says:

    So I tried the new template with version 2.2 and it just came up blank.
    Is there a new link for this version I am missing. Thanks

  12. Roi says:

    I ‘ve download your template, but when I opened it I found only an empty document, as reported above… would it be possible to get a newer version compatible with the current scriv version? it seems a very useful method. Thanks a lot

  13. Rena S. says:

    Thank goodness for this post.

  14. micheal mcalexander says:

    please update this template. it looks so great but can’t use with new Scrivener

  15. roelani says:

    New template is up here.

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